Years before Saddam Hussein was captured in a “spider hole,” a man who looked exactly like Saddam was captured — on film. Complete with a mustache, black beret and the name “Saddam” embroidered on his shirt, he was handing a pair of golden bowling shoes to actor Jeff Bridges in a Los Angeles bowling alley. The men who captured him were Joel and Ethan Coen, the filmmakers behind “The Big Lebowski.”
Jerry Haleva, a Sephardic Jew from Seattle, made a career impersonating the butcher of Baghdad. Since the early 1990s, Haleva has appeared in films ranging from “Jane Austen’s Mafia!” to “Live From Baghdad.”
“Only in America can a nice Sephardic boy get paid for [dressing up as] Saddam Hussein,” Haleva said with a laugh.
But when the war in Iraq started last spring, Saddam not only disappeared from Baghdad, he also disappeared from Hollywood.
“I thought it [wasn’t] time to make light of it,” Haleva told the Forward. “I was not happy doing the portrayal when [our troops were engaged] in active combat.”
Roughly 50 newspapers around the country called Haleva in 2003 to interview him about the fact that, as the Los Angeles Times put it, he was “hanging up his beret.” He declined all interviews.
But now that the real Saddam is behind bars, the Hollywood Saddam is free.
Haleva, the 57-year-old head of the California lobbying firm Sergeant Major Communications and member of the executive committee of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, told the Forward that he will start appearing as Saddam again as soon as he gets an offer.
Haleva first discovered that he looked like the Iraqi leader in 1989 when he worked for a member of the California state legislature, at a time when Saddam had a relatively low profile on the international stage. A legislative official cut out a photo of Saddam that appeared in the paper and handed it around with the caption: “Now we know what Haleva does on his weekends.”
Shortly after this, when Saddam invaded Kuwait, a sudden demand for look-alikes bloomed.
Now that Haleva is getting back into the impersonation game, he is hoping to do a politically-themed production. “My hopes for the Super Bowl commercial didn’t pan out,” he said. But he also added that he would draw the line at doing anything to hurt the Republicans.
“Being a strong supporter of the president, I would do anything for [Bush],” said Haleva — something unlikely ever to be uttered by a certain Jerry Haleva look-alike.